The Horrid Chorus
Edward Wright Haile, The Oresteia of Aeschylus
Lanham, MD.: The University Press of America, 1994
286 pp., pb. $29.50,
Reviewed by Patrick Rourke,
Department of English,
University of Massachussetts,
Greek tragedy seems to be particularly vulnerable to the proliferation of 'classic world literature' translations. Like any text widely used in a college course, tragedy texts have a built-in audience -- thanks to teachers who want their students to read the Oresteia, say, but don't know enough about the methodologies of translators and translation to care which text their students use. On my own shelf, I can count the following translations of the Oresteia: Robert Fagles (Penguin), David Grene (Chicago), Richmond Lattimore (Chicago), Hugh Lloyd-Jones (California by way of Duckworth and Harper-Row), the out of print Thomson (Oxford, the best in my opinion), Robert Lowell, Tony Harrison, Louis MacNeice, and Herbert Weir Smyth's Loeb (which may be one of the best Loebs). So it seems that the prevailing opinion among publishers is that the ideal number of translations of any work is n -- where n equals the number of publishing companies.
The University Press of America entry for the Oresteia is a book that will not be joining the Lattimore and Lloyd-Jones on my shelf: Edward Wright Haile's translation is overpriced and underwhelming.
What do you get for your thirty dollars? A book printed on poor if alkaline paper with cheap covers, from the look of it typeset on a word processor. A book with no introduction, only a one-page preface, and no intepretive notes, only textual notes. A translation with no controlling philosophy and no critical intelligence. A book which never asks itself the question, 'what is to be my audience?' and which as a result will never have one.
The book is as bare a translation as can be made: three plays, dramatis personae, translation of six fragments with a short one- page explanatory note, a page-long preface telling the reader nothing about the play or the philosophy of the translation, but only the methodology, a six-item bibliography, textual notes, and, remarkably, the hypotheses. If a translator were to take Page's Oxford Classical Text, translate the words of the first three paragraphs of the Praefatio and everything from pages 137 to 286, edit out all but the most important listings in the apparatus criticus, and insert a few stage directions of the same brevity as those in Shakespeare's First Folio, she would produce something not quite identitical to Haile's book, but close enough to be easily confused with his book. Haile is essentially trying to recreate not Aeschylus' play but rather a classicist's text of Aeschylus' play. He even goes so far as to translate str. a as 'ALPHA STROPHE' -- not even 'First Strophe.' To my mind (and I hope that the readers of this forum, which is after all subtitled Ancient Theater Today, will agree), a translation of a play which does everything it can to obscure the fact of the play is not a translation at all.
Haile is trying to write in an inflated, archaic style. This is appropriate to the translation of Aeschylus, whose style is inflated (at least, in respect to the other tragedians, especially Euripides). Unfortunately, archaism is a difficult device to control. If an author has a good command of the archaic dialect in question, if his writing is idiomatic, or at least consistent enough to seem idiomatic, it can be very effective; but if an author has a poor command of the archaic dialect he is affecting, the result can't rise above unintended burlesque. Another problem is consistency of dialect and tone: the pacing of Aristophanic comedy, for instance, is ill accommodated by stately Victorian verse; while florid Elizabethan English can only accommodate certain registers, certain modes. For most contemporary readers, the affected dialects of the older Georgian poets (Masefield, for instance) can be painful obstacles -- because they are poorly controlled. Haile's archaisms are poorly controlled in both senses: he slides between archaic and near-colloquial dialect without thought or reason and his tone almost never comes into alignment with his dialect.
A few examples from the text might help to bring Haile's problems into focus. A fair specimen of Haile's best work might be this:
Now the seer of the host, far in vision, minded Atreus' war-loving sons were divided in heart, knew the twain that devoured the hare for the twain that commanded the force, and divining so spoke: Time enough and the course we pursue must come to the capture of Troy. . . .
What's good about these lines is that Haile manages to preserve the feel of the dactyls in an English analog that, rhythmically at least, is smooth; the phrasing, properly, is controlling the meter and not vice versa. There is some sense of poetry in these lines. But Haile doesn't control his word choice. The phrase 'far in vision' is not equivalent to 'all-seeing' or 'visionary' or 'full of visions'; Haile's effort to expand its meaning in this way has failed. 'Minded' simply can't be used this way. A preposition is needed to introduce the phrase 'Atreus' war-loving sons / were divided in heart.' Finally, the language throughout is simply cliched and banal; there are no surprises (other than the surprises in usage). The cumulative effect of Haile's literary affectations (and that is precisely what an uncontrolled penchant for archaism is, a literary affectation) is barely distinguishable from the Aeschylus ridiculed by the character of Euripides in The Frogs. Haile's archaism -- especially in the context of his tonal inconsistencies -- is an obstacle.
There you have verged on heaven's oracle and said it truly. For my part I'm willing to accept things and be glad, yes, grievous though they are, and vow as much unto this devil of the Pleisthenids, if and henceforth he'll go and quit these halls for good and beat some other generation down in home and internecine butchery.
Maybe it's futile to argue that 'For my part/ I'm willing to accept things' and 'grievous though they are' don't belong in the same sentence (at least Haile has spared us from the more direct quote of his model, 'yea, grievous'). On the other hand, I don't think it's so futile to point out that 'if and henceforth' isn't English style (what does the 'and' say in this phrase?), or that 'henceforth' and 'for good' are redundant ('if and from now on he'll go and quit these hall for good'). Other questions: is 'home' supposed to be an adjective here? If not, then why is it used with the preposition 'in'? Isn't the translation of daimon as 'devil' a little problematic? And what reader could possibly know what 'this devil of the Pleisthenids' means and need to read this play in translation? (In all honesty, I had to look it up in the Greek to be sure.)
The other two plays fare no better -- one unhappy phrase put into the mouths of the Erinyes is 'Come, let us now link the dance./ Display the horrid chorus/ we have chosen to put on.' The whole book is like this: putative poetry wrapped around Aeschylus like some mouldy blanket. It is unreadable, and unplayable (which is to say that I can't imagine watching any performance of this play without laughing at all the wrong spots). Compared to the charming Thomson translation, Fagles, or even Smyth (a translation which makes no pretence towards poetry or playability), it is a 'horrid chorus.'
I found it very difficult to review this book. It is obvious to me that Mr. Haile has a great enthusiasm for Aeschylus, and is doing his best to try to present the Oresteia in the best dress he can tailor.
But the Oresteia is a hugely difficult text to translate; enthusiasm is not enough. There is no honor in ridiculing a man for reaching beyond his talents. If this translation had been published by a subsidy press in a nicely designed hard cover limited edition, it would have passed unnoticed like so many other of the mediocre works of amateur enthusiasts, and would have deserved no worse comment than silence. But it has been published by a putative university press in a cheap edition at an absurd price, with laudatory blurbs from four prominent classical scholars. Mr. Haile is as much a victim of the publishers (and of his readers, who should have gently discouraged him from publication) as the consumers who purchase this book. At this price, you're better off making two purchases: buy the Fagles translation, which is more readable, has some (limited) value as poetry, and has a splendid introduction by W. B. Stanford; and buy Smyth's Loeb, which has a rather accurate translation of all the poetic texts in this book (and the rest of the fragments as well) as well as the very Greek text Haile tried, and failed, to represent. I would recommend this translation only to the friends of Mr. Haile, whose responsibility it is to encourage and not to condemn, and to the readers at University Press of America.
Patrick Rourke is a graduate student in the Department of English at University of Massachusetts, Boston.